Friday, January 22, 2010

Thinking Commercial

If you haven't read it yet, there's a very interesting and long profile of James Patterson in the New York Times Magazine. Among other tidbits, the article says that 1 out of every 17 novels bought in the United States since 2006 was written by James Patterson; he writes up to nine books a year with a stable of coauthors who do the actual writing from his detailed outlines; he's had 35 NYT #1 best-sellers and 51 books that made the list; and he's ferociously in charge of his own career—he has been constantly pushing his publisher from day one to approach publishing like moviemaking, as a collaborative, branded business. If you believe the article, he single-handedly invented the blockbuster model that has come to dominate publishing.

James Patterson thinks commercially. His books "are not high art," he says, and he edits them between hardcover and softcover versions to respond to reader feedback and his own ideas. He cares less about sentences and more about stories, and although he himself reads "high brow" literature (he cited James Joyce as a favorite), he aims to write simple, fast stories with short chapter, short sentences, and short paragraphs. His characters are deliberately simple, and the books are heavy on violence, sexual themes, and action in a very conscious attempt to pull people through.

It took Patterson a while to develop this model. His first novel, published in 1976, was a more "literary" noir novel, with more complexity and less accessibility. It had moderate sales and didn't rise above the normal literary chatter. It took him a few books to get the hang of what he calls "popular fiction," by which he means books that are fun, fast, light, titillating, and written purely for sheer entertainment.

I once saw Patterson speaking, purely by accident, at a local bookstore. It was my lunch break, so I was hanging around the bookstore to get out of the office, and he happened to be there for a talk. So I hung around in the back and listened. There were perhaps 200 people there, and I clearly remember one thing he said: "If you want to write what's in your heart, go ahead. But you'll never get published."


So let's say there's a spectrum in the literary world. At one end, there's authors like Patterson, who write purely for audience enjoyment. They write commercial fiction, and they do it well. Millions of people love it. At the other end, there is Thomas Pynchon -- a book every fifteen years, a book so dense and loaded with meaning that it is sure to be studied for generations hence, but it will likely sell mediocre.

As writers, we have to locate ourselves along this spectrum somewhere. Is the goal to write fun books? Commercial books? To illuminate the human condition? To say something? To gain literary respect?

I've struggled myself on this one. I don't like the idea of writing books solely for sales, but I love the idea of writing for my audience. I admire literary books—I'm wild about Moby Dick—but I work very hard to make sure my own writing is simple, clean and quick. I think books have something to say, but I also love to get my hands on a story that rocks along and takes me for the ride. I thought The DaVinci Code was silly and poorly written with outrageous characters; I thought The DaVinci Code was a nearly perfectly executed thriller. I have no problem linking writing to money—I think anyone who does will have a hard time feeding themselves by writing—but I often write for free because I love it.

So ... where are you?


Melanie Avila said...

Let's say there's a sliding scale -- literary being 0 and commercial like you're talking about a 10 (yes, I flipped those on purpose). I'd say I aim to be an 8. I want to touch my readers on an emotional level, but I get a rush when readers tell me they read my book in one or two days.

At the heart of it all I want to entertain people, and I'm okay if they don't discuss it for weeks afterwards.

Natasha Fondren said...

I read that article! One thing I loved about it was that he sort of had the same attitude as Robert Heinlein, in that as long as they know their audience, they can write a story for anyone. (Heinlein wrote a story for two little girls to prove his case.)

I agree completely with him that you should know your audience first. Unless it serves my audience, I delete. (Except yesterday, I edited an old, old, old story for ebook release, and kept in a part where I intruded on the story to wax poetic on cheese, simply because I'm allergic to it now, and that paragraph is ALL I HAVE LEFT of my love affair with cheese.)

The only thing I've not written for money are the two flash fiction pieces I wrote for your blog.

Mark Terry said...

I haven't finished the article yet--I started it last night--but I would argue that his first couple Alex Cross novels weren't just commercial, they were damned fine thrillers. He lost--for good--with Pop Goes The Weasel; and from a somewhat idealistic POV his type of branding with co-authors irritates me no end.

I do think it's possible to write good commercial fiction that offers more than a roller coaster ride (much of Stephen King's work, for instance; a lot of the late Robert B. Parker; Jonathan Kellerman; David Morrell; the late Ed McBain; much of Dick Francis...), that may, in fact, deal with themes and imagery and leave the reader with more than they came in with.

I find it's interesting you mention Thomas Pynchon, given that I've always wondered if the people who BUY his books actually READ his books, since the words "maddening" and "obfuscatory" easily describe his work.

It's also interesting you mention Moby Dick, since it was largely a failed commercial work. But then again, geniuses aren't always recognized while alive--Mozart was recognized as a genius, but it was only after his premature death and his wife went about taking over his manuscripts that money came in; Shakespeare was certainly successful in his lifetime, but it was unusual for people to collect plays in written from at that time, and it is only because of his friend's collecting them in a folio that he's remembered today.

LurkerMonkey said...


I think if I had to "number" myself, I'd probably say the same, right around an 8. I would always want books I wrote to be entertaining and fun, almost above all. So an 8.

LurkerMonkey said...


Then I feel kinda honored, since this is the only place you'll write for free!

And I agree about cheese. And audiences.

LurkerMonkey said...

I agree about thrillers, although I'm not very widely read in them. But I've come across a few that I thought were a cut above the average, say, Patterson novel.

Yes ... Pynchon and Melville. Ha ha. I did Gravity's Rainbow a year or two back and, while it was exceedingly difficult and slow reading, I actually found it also very observant, funny, demented and engaging. It stuck with me in a serious way. And Moby Dick ... well, Moby Dick is my favorite novel, bar none. By a very wide margin. And it was more than a commercial failure--it was a bitter disappointment. Melville was a successful adventure novelist before Moby Dick, with back-to-back successes. Three years later, he produced Moby Dick and couldn't even sell 3,000 copies.

And yet ...

E. Flanigan said...

After going to J-school and (very briefly) trying to get a job as a print journalist, one of the things that caused me to shift gears was my lack of interest in writing for a living.

When I do write, my interest is in engaging with my own thoughts in a way that engages the thoughts of others. And conversely, my favorite stuff to read is that which makes me think. I find that entertaining, but I do understand that it's not what floats most people's boats.

And so, I have never written a single piece of fiction that I tried to get published, and I probably never will. That doesn't make me literary, but it sure as heck doesn't bode well for my commercial potential! :)